Late Friday night Yevgeny Prigozhin—the man once best known as a petty criminal turned Vladimir Putin’s caterer—launched the power play he has likely been preparing for months while most Rosgvardia and military personnel were heading out for their weekend leave. Initial reactions from Russian media and pro-Russian milbloggers ran an amusing gamut of denial, resignation, delusion, and frothing rage. As the Wagner rebels continued their march practically unopposed, Russian sources began nervously remarking that the lightly armed and poorly motivated Russian military and Rosgvardia units around Moscow were not likely to prevail against the Wagner task force barreling toward them. The civilian population shared that sentiment. All outgoing flights from Moscow sold out early Saturday morning.
Then suddenly, only 200 kilometers from Moscow, Prigozhin halted his “march of justice” and vanished into exile in Belarus after declaring that Wagner was returning to field camps “according to the plan.” In spite of Prigozhin backing down, this rebellion spells increasing disintegration of Russia’s capacity to field an effective military fighting force, not to mention potential chaos in Wagner’s global deployments. And its ramifications for both Putin’s regime and his war in Ukraine will invariably extend well beyond the brief period of the putsch that wasn’t.
A Putsch Months in Preparation
Prigozhin ordered Wagner to withdraw from Bakhmut two months after declaring victory amid continuing sharp critiques of the Russian government for failures to support his men’s efforts to take the city from the Ukrainians. Chief among his complaints was a consistent lack of ammunition and artillery support. The Russian government is now countering with a claim that Wagner forces were instead hoarding their ammunition for this coup attempt. If Wagner was destined to die, Prigozhin announced in one of his selfie videos, it would be not “at the hands of the Ukrainian army or NATO but because of our domestic bastard-bureaucrats.” By all accounts, both Western and Russian, Wagner took horrendous losses in Bakhmut—over twenty thousand of its fighters killed, primarily from its penal battalion prisoner assault squads.
The losses were so atrocious that Wagner had emptied out Russian prisons of volunteers by February 2023, but the propaganda value that Progozhin achieved through the blood of his convicts was invaluable. Wagner has been increasingly seen by the general Russian public as a lean, vicious, and effective fighting force—in sharp contrast to the feckless and corrupt Russian Ministry of Defense and its conventional troops. Slowly over the course of the grinding urban campaign for Bakhmut, his initial ire aimed at Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov gave way to criticism of Putin himself, albeit cautious and deniable. The Gleiwitz incident that Prigozhin used to declare all-out war against the Ministry of Defense was an alleged artillery attack against Wagner from within Russia itself on Friday, June 23. Wagner promptly revealed its operational plan, seizing the Southern Military District headquarters in the critical logistical hub Rostov-on-Dov and sending a strike force north along the M-4 highway to run the twelve-hour drive directly to Moscow. According to reports inside Russia and Prigozhin himself, Wagner had over twenty-five thousand picked men with accompanying armored vehicles heading for Moscow—including a core of battle-hardened veterans from the campaign in Bakhmut.
Putin’s Response—Prigozhin Backs Down
Prigozhin’s initial crossing of the Rubicon in seizing Rostov could have been deescalated by Putin in the classic tsarist maneuver of putting the blame on an unlucky patsy boyar. As Prigozhin’s complaints were couched in such a way that the Ministry of Defense bore the brunt, Putin could have possibly parried the sword of Damocles by sacrificing Gerasimov and Shoigu in favor of Prigozhin. The hapless minister of defense and chief of staff could have been packed away to a mandatory retirement in their dachas, while Prigozhin could ascend to be primary war leader of the so-called special military operation. However, Vladimir Vladimirovich is known for the fierce levels of loyalty both demanded of and received from his inner circle. This would have shown an unacceptable level of weakness if Prigozhin’s uppity behavior went unpunished.
Putin’s loyalists maintain a mafia-style relationship. Treachery of this magnitude cannot be tolerated or appeased. Instead, Putin escalated the situation by naming Prigozhin a traitor and letting Wagner know that it had stepped out of royal favor and into a minefield. The historical parallels with the 1917 Russian Revolution and the collapse of the Romanov tsardom are so striking that even Putin couldn’t avoid mentioning it in his speech condemning Prigozhin and declaring him an enemy of the state:
It’s a strike in the back of our country and our people. Exactly this strike was dealt in 1917 when the country was in world war one, but its victory was stolen. . . . We will not let this happen. We will protect our people and state from any threats, including internal betrayal. What we’re facing is exactly internal betrayal. Extraordinary ambitions and personal interests led to treason.
Within minutes of the speech, state-owned media company TASS reported that criminal cases were being opened against Wagner for “incitement of armed rebellion.” The sternness of this reaction made it clear that the consequences of Prigozhin’s rebellion were dire. After Prigozhin agreed to go into exile in Belarus in exchange for “guarantees” after backing down, a video surfaced (with an unusual blurred watch) showing his nemesis Shoigu surveying the front line and speaking to officers. Gerasimov has yet to be seen.
How Bad Could This Be for Putin’s War?
So far, the situation on the Ukrainian front remains unchanged. In spite of some Western pro-Russian commentators claiming that Putin has strengthened his position of power by eliminating Prigozhin as a competitor in a similar way that Erdogan did during the 2016 coup attempt in Ankara, Russia is not Turkey. Infighting has historically doomed Russian war efforts repeatedly from Manchuria to Sevastopol. After the February Revolution in 1917 the Russian army held the line against the Central Powers for another year before utterly collapsing in flight when the Bolshevik-led peace talks failed and the Germans launched Operation Faustschlag. It is important to remember that this sort of internecine fighting is precisely the most injurious to military order and discipline. Fratricidal violence is also the type of fighting that Russians especially excel at. A worst-case scenario for Putin and his war in Ukraine would see the Prighozin episode not as a narrowly averted crisis but as a fatal crack in the façade of Putin’s regime and Russian military power that reveals the structural weaknesses of both.
Russian aviation suffered its worst day of the war since its opening week—at the hands of fellow Russians. The fragile national identity that papers over the myriad ethnic, religious, or ideological lines crisscrossing the Russian Federation is being severely damaged. Russian soldiers will be torn between obedience to their commanders, loyalty to the government in Moscow, and their own personal beliefs or affiliations, leading to factions that may turn against each other or refuse to cooperate. Ramzan Kadyrov’s vaunted Chechens arrived in Moscow to defend the regime and post TikTok videos, but their appearance in the capital came hours after Wagner forces had already returned to Rostov, apparently from being stuck in traffic. Wagner has gone from heroes of the Russian Federation to nonpersons overnight, condemned to exile in Belarus, ignominious retirement, or contracting with their regular army archrivals.
The implications of Wagner’s actions inside Russia will reverberate well beyond its borders, as well. While Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claims that Wagner operations will continue in Mali and the Central African Republic as before, it is impossible that this failed rebellion will not change the dynamics between Wagner and the Russian Ministry of Defense, on which it relies for logistical and transportation support for its operations in these countries. Wagner is no longer seen as a reliable arm of Russian policy. African governments may also change their minds about Russian involvement going forward. Additionally, the eight thousand Wagner troops moving into camps in southern Belarus can be hardly a reassuring sight for Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and his beleaguered post-Soviet army. Lukashenko will have to rely upon Prigozhin’s fear of Putin and gratitude for Lukashenko brokering his exile deal to keep the former caterer from turning his march of justice upon Minsk and enforcing a Wagner-led regime change.
If trust continues to break down, command structures will increasingly deteriorate, logistics will be redirected from the front lines to save the regime, and soldiers will desert to save their own skins. Good order will evaporate, leading to fragmentation, loss of command and control, and ultimately the collapse of the armed forces. If that collapse comes, it will be complete.
Of course, that is the worst-case scenario—plausible, but not necessarily the most likely in the range of potential outcomes. The ultimate impact of Prigozhin’s aborted coup might take some time to become apparent. In the meantime, the war against Ukraine will straggle on as well as the local commanders can manage. But keep an eye on Russian state television and listen out for the opening strains of Swan Lake
Maj. Peter Mitchell is an air defense officer and strategic studies instructor at West Point.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: fargoh